College football Week 16 winners and losers: Ohio State survives, Oklahoma wins Big 12 again
It wasn't pretty. Ohio State's edge entering the fourth quarter in the Buckeyes' first five games: 21 points (Nebraska), 18 points (Penn State), 33 points (Rutgers), 21 points (Indiana) and 31 points (Michigan State).
Northwestern made them sweat. The Wildcats led 7-3 after one quarter. It was 10-6 at halftime. The Buckeyes led 13-10 after three quarters, but it felt like a flimsy advantage — Northwestern was one big play from moving ahead, sitting on the lead and pulling off a shocking upset in the Big Ten championship game.
Behind an inspired performance from running back Trey Sermon, OSU eventually wore down Northwestern's top-ranked defense and won 22-10 to cap an abbreviated but unbeaten regular season and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Sermon ran for 331 yards on 29 carries, setting the program's single-game record — besting former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George's 314 in 1995 — to overcome the worst game of junior quarterback Justin Fields' nearly flawless college career. Fields completed 12 of his 27 attempts for 114 yards and two interceptions.
A transfer from Oklahoma, Sermon had run for 344 yards in the Buckeyes' first five games but broke out in a 52-12 win against Michigan State on Dec. 5, rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
The relatively close margin of victory won't keep OSU out of the playoff. Hanging tight with the Buckeyes should give the Wildcats a very good case for one of the New Year's Six bowls, however. Northwestern hasn't played in one of the major bowls since reaching the Rose Bowl in 1996.
Here are the winners and losers from the final week of the regular season, including Friday's games:
Florida scored a bunch of points, as expected. Florida couldn't stop Alabama, also as expected. The Crimson Tide's 52-46 win locks down the No. 1 seed in the playoff but raises a few questions about the defense, which had bottled up a run of offensively unimposing SEC opponents but struggled against Kyle Trask and the Gators. What does that say about Alabama's matchup against one of the nation's best teams in the semifinals or championship game? It might not change much. The story on Alabama all season has been one of near-perfection on offense and enough on defense to win another national title. Besides, Florida would drop 40 or more points on just about anybody.
Beating Notre Dame 34-10 for the ACC championship locks Clemson into the playoff, very likely as the No. 2 seed, and answers any lingering questions coming out of the Tigers' overtime loss to the Fighting Irish in November. Trevor Lawrence made a major Heisman Trophy statement with 412 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, Travis Etienne cracked the 100-yard mark for the third time this season and the Tigers' defense controlled the line of scrimmage and made six sacks.
The Bearcats hit a field goal as time expired and beat Tulsa 27-24 to take the American championship and grab the automatic bid to a New Year's Six bowl given to the best team in the Group of Five. Always a long shot, Cincinnati may be plugged as an option for the semifinals but won't be given the nod by the selection committee. Any sense of disappointment over being sidelined in the chase for the national championship is tempered by the upcoming trip to a major bowl and the program's continued excellence under coach Luke Fickell, who could've leaped to a Power Five job this past offseason but stuck around, aware of how good this 2020 team could be. The Bearcats are 31-5 in the past three seasons.
DESERVING BEARCATS:Playoff committee should put Cincinnati in semifinals
The Sooners took a 17-0 lead in the first half, led 24-7 at halftime and parried Iowa State's charge to beat the Cyclones 27-21 and win the program's sixth consecutive Big 12 championship. That Iowa State would storm back was inevitable: The Cyclones had topped OU earlier this season, had won six in a row coming into Saturday and were playing for the school's first conference title in more than a century. ISU drew within a field goal at 24-21 with five minutes left before OU added a field goal and made a late defensive stop. The Sooners are now 11-1 in Big 12 championship games.
Army's 10-7 win against Air Force gives the Black Knights the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the third time in four years. The win comes one week after Army pitched a 15-0 shutout against rival Navy. Now 9-2, the Black Knights will head into the postseason with a strong case for the Top 25 and a shot at notching double-digit wins for the third time under coach Jeff Monken.
San Jose State
The Spartans are one of the great success stories of the 2020 season. SJSU beat Boise State 34-20 in the Mountain West championship game to claim the first MWC title in program history and move to 7-0 for the first time since 1939. The Spartans went 3-22 in coach Brent Brennan's first two seasons, in 2017 and 2018, before beginning to turn a corner in 2019. His no-shortcut blueprint for building SJSU has made Brennan a very intriguing candidate for the opening at Arizona.
Saturday's most exciting game was one with zero national importance: LSU outscored Mississippi 53-48 behind quarterback Max Johnson's 435 yards and three touchdowns. On the positive side, this is the sixth time this season the Tigers have scored 34 or more points. On the other hand, this is the sixth time Bo Pelini's defense has allowed the same amount. While the Tigers self-imposed a postseason ban for 2020, this is LSU's second straight win and sends the program into the offseason with significant momentum.
Friday's 38-28 win against Buffalo handed Ball State its first MAC championship since 1996. A two-touchdown underdog against the Bulls, the nation's highest-scoring team heading into the weekend, the Cardinals went on a 21-0 run to end the first half and put the clamps on Buffalo's likely All-America running back Jaret Patterson, who had just 47 yards on 18 carries.
Now things are complicated. Before Saturday, logic went that Notre Dame would stick in the top four even with a loss. Maybe that theory didn't take into account a lopsided loss. The Irish will enter the postseason at 10-1 with nine wins against Power Five teams, four with winning records, and can tout very solid wins against Clemson and North Carolina. That may be enough — but Texas A&M is looming in the playoff debate. In a larger sense, the ugly loss rekindles concerns over how Notre Dame fares under Brian Kelly in the do-or-die sort of games that can decide the national championship.
A&M took care of business and dominated Tennessee, running 79 plays to the Volunteers' 44 and controlling possession for nearly 45 minutes to win 34-13 and end the regular season at 8-1. Will it be enough? Ohio State's win closed one potential path to the playoff. Clemson's win against Notre Dame makes things interesting, however. Even if the Tigers' 24-point win complicates things for the Irish, A&M is still far from a lock to squeeze into the top four. The Aggies' case rests on eight SEC wins, including against Florida, with the one loss to Alabama. It may not be enough.
After entering the Pac-12 championship as the league's lone unbeaten, Friday's 31-24 loss to Oregon eliminates the Trojans from New Year's Six contention and reignites the debate over coach Clay Helton's job security. There's no sugarcoating the disappointment: USC was playing the second-place team from the North division in the two-loss Ducks, and with a win could've earned a third January bowl in Helton's six full seasons. Instead, the Trojans committed three turnovers, racked up nearly 100 penalty yards and averaged just 4.5 yards per play.
MAJOR MISTAKE:Pac-12 Conference bungled and cheapened its title game
Friday's cancellation of the Sun Belt championship game also hurts Louisiana-Lafayette, which had a chance to avenge a 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina earlier this season and build a case for the New Year's Six with a Cincinnati loss to Tulsa in the American title game. But the inability to play the game is more harmful to the Chanticleers, who could've moved even higher in the final playoff rankings and taken a big step toward securing a major bowl berth by beating the Ragin' Cajuns. While the two will be recognized as co-champions, Coastal would be the Sun Belt's New Year's Six representative as the league's highest-ranked team.